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A tooth in my soup

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The first time Ramin Gray travelled to India, he'd just finished Push Up, a Royal Theatre Court production written by Roland Schimmelpfennig in 2002. His second visit to India, and first to Delhi, has to do with another Schimmelpfennig play, The Golden Dragon, about the contentious and deeply human issue of migration.

Gray is known for his revival of Max Frisch's classic play The Arsonists starring Benedict 'Sherlock' Cumberbatch. As a veteran director of Iranian descent who lives in London, he is in a unique position to understand the nuances of Schimmelpfennig's German play about an illegal Chinese immigrant working in a Chinese takeaway. It has divided its critics and audiences into two those who loved it and those who simply didn't. The English version, commissioned and directed by Gray, has pretty much the same effect.

"Some people really love it, some really hate it, " says Ramin as he waits for his cast of five actors - two women and three men - for rehearsals at the National School of Drama in Delhi. "I find that very interesting because that makes watching it feel very alive. It's very unpredictable and very difficult to categorise. Having said that, playing it in India hasn't been very dissimilar because we're all humans. Superficially, we're all different and essentially very similar. "

The structure of the play is a little confusing and the casting collapses the old-fashioned boundaries of gender and age. Men are played by women, women by men, young characters by old actors and old characters by young actors. In addition, the five actors enact 17 characters.

"The structure and the technique of the play is basically very Brechtian, " says Gray. "I think Roland Schimmelpfennig is better than Bertolt Brecht. The true idea behind the alienation technique is to make you see something more clearly and think about it while you're experiencing it, and that's what Roland does. Some people really don't like that because in the world today, the default position is to try and immerse the audience and plunge them deeply into an experience out of which they have no way out. This play feels different because it does precisely the opposite. It reminds you that you're having the experience while you're having it and draws attention to that fact in order to point out some really fundamental truths about how we operate as human beings. But that's not everyone's cup of tea, " he smiles.

The 70-minute-long play centres around The Golden Dragon, a Chinese takeaway. Between cooking and cleaning in the cramped kitchen, a young Chinese man without a resident permit has an incisor that is tormenting him pulled out with a wrench. This tooth accidentally lands in the Thai soup, which finds its way into the mouth of a stewardess, one of the restaurant's regulars. Then there's the story of the cricket and the ants.

Astonishingly but also appropriately, the cast is all white, keeping in line with the play's opposite approach. It's a fact that has invited much comment. "In the play, there's a really simple scheme, " Gray explains. "The actors play roles distant to themselves. A man plays a woman, a woman plays a man. An old person plays a young person. A human being plays an ant. If I'd cast a Chinese actor as the Chinese in the kitchen, then we would've realism and naturalism and that's not what the play is interested in."

Gray did tinker with the idea of having a multi-racial cast but later discarded it. "An all-white cast felt like a bold choice, a real choice. In one sense, the play is by a white person, addressed to white people for what is usually largely a white audience saying, 'Listen, white people. Let's imagine what's it like to be the other. If you've a Black actor or Indian, it somehow makes that point less clear. I've also got sick and tired of seeing plays which have got an Indian and African actor and a Chinese actor selling the idea of multiculturalism. They're subliminally saying we're all one big happy family and it makes no difference that one person is white and the other is black and that's far from the truth. "

While themes of globalisation and intertwining cultures work well in migrant-heavy countries like Europe and America, the theme is a little alien in countries like India. This had Gray worried as well. But it was on the recommendation of a couple of Indian producers who saw The Golden Dragon in Edinburgh last year that Gray decided to travel to India with his production.
"On the face of it, it's about an immigrant or a migrant from a developing country like China, but it could be someone from India, " he says. "This is very much a play about Western Europeans trying to imagine what people from developing countries are experiencing when they come to the West. Perhaps it's interesting for an Indian audience to see what Western Europeans are thinking about such situations. But a majority of the theatre audiences in India and China are incredibly sophisticated and as westernised as the Western people. I don't think this is a story that can happen in India. It's most definitely a Western Europe setting. "

The Actors Touring Company
in association with the British
Council will be performing
this play at Jagriti Theatre,
Bangalore till Jan 29.

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